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Mariachi and Tequila
Singing, Dancing and Drinking in Jalisco
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Jalisco, Mexico New York, NY - Let?s start with a bit of history; Mexico has 31 states set up much like their U.S. counterparts, or so they like to say. Many people recognize such places as Mexico City, Acapulco, Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta but you do have to look at the map and travel guide when heading out on a five-day trip to Jalisco. But, it did help when I found out that Puerto Vallarta, a marvelous place to vacation and as much of a destination for Californians as Atlantic City is for the gaming set on the east coast, is in Jalisco. One cannot travel to this wonderful beach resort city without mentioning Mariachi and Tequila, the two treasures of Jalisco. The journey will likely take you, as it did me, through Dallas/Fort Worth where you change planes to go on to Guadalajara (yes, Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Kathleen Turner), Mexico?s second largest city with three million residents and a total of six million in the metropolitan area. My destination was the Hilton Guadalajara, conveniently located directly across the street from the very large and busy conference/convention center. The benefits of belonging to every hotel program known to man paid dividends with a room on the executive floor where they offered a full breakfast each morning and canap?s and wine in the evening, not to mention the advantageous and expedient separate check-in concierge.

Guadalajara, which translates into river that runs among the rocks in Arabic (and, no, do not ask me how that happened) is located 350 miles from Mexico City in the western end of Mexico remembering that Puerto Vallarta borders on the Pacific Ocean. Happily, my arrival coincided with the start of the 10-day International Mariachi & Charro Festival. For the uninitiated, the Mariachi Band was "born" in Cocula, about 46 miles southwest of Guadalajara, and is historically immortalized with a Mariachi Museum. The festival opened with a two hour parade highlighted by the best Mariachi bands in the world, Charros (Mexican cowboys), beauty queens, sponsored floats, everyone singing and dancing. There were even several U.S. representative bands and exhibits, mostly from Texas and Arizona.

Mariachi band
Musicians play during the opening of the International Mariachi & Charro Festival.
After the parade, I joined those attending the opening ceremonies at the 1,500 seat Degallado Opera House, built in 1866, where the Jalisco Symphony Orchestra performed with what were determined to be the three best Mariachi bands in the world.

As a first time visitor I spent a day in the historic center visiting the cathedral, capitol building (seat of the Jalisco government), Plaza de Armas (central plaza), Plaza Tapatia and the Cabanas Cultural Institute, where they have the J.C. Orozco paintings on the ceilings and walls portraying the history of Mexico religiously, governmentally and socially. The same artist also has several murals in the capitol rotunda and, if you go there, be certain to ask a guide to explain the symbolism of all his work. They will give you an insight into Mexican history from rule by Spain through independence (1810), celebrated every September 16th.

Any visit to Jalisco really calls for several trips to the surrounding areas, none of which are more than a two hour drive. One of those "target destinations" was Lake Chapala, Mexico?s largest lake. On the way, I might suggest a stop for lunch at the Hotel Real de Chapala in Ajijic, a town with the largest Canadian retirement community outside Florida, not to mention a very large U.S. contingent. Nearby Tonala is an artisan village and it was here that yours truly learned how to make Tortillas, the country's national food. All are safe, however, since I do not have any plans to open a chain of Mexican restaurants. The first night away from the Hilton was one of trepidation and concern but it was spent at the 16-room Hotel Hacienda del Carmen, about 36 miles from Guadalajara. It is a converted monastery that offers horseback riding, golf, tennis and a modern spa that almost seems out of place in its sharp contrast to the 282-year old building. The individualized rooms were pleasingly arge with high ceilings and modern bathrooms, an absolute necessity for those traveling from the States. If the large style (but elegant) Hilton is not your cup of tea, in addition to the Hotel Hacienda you might wish to inquire of and try the 10-room Hotel Villa Ganz, near the downtown Guadalajara historical center. They are a part of the Mexico Boutique Hotels Group (800-728-9098) with 33 member properties ranging in size from four to 70 rooms. One of the nearby town that is worth an afternoon is Tlaquepaque, where you will find native Mexican handicrafts, a ceramics museum and several art and furniture galleries along a pedestrian and well traveled street.

Blue Agave plants
Commonly considered a cactus, the Blue Agave plant is actually part of the lily family.
The national drink is (you guessed it!) Tequila. The finest brands are 100% Blue Agave, which is not a cactus but part of the lily family. Others can, however, be labeled tequila without the 100% agave imprint. There are white or silver and gold (caramel added for color), perfect for mixing and combining in Margaritas - Reposado that is aged two to 12 months and Anejo, aged one to five years using oak casks. Don?t confuse tequila with mezcal made from other agaves and prominent in the state of Oaxaca. The two major centers for tequila are one hour east (town of Arandas) and one hour west (town of Tequila) of Guadalajara. Your first visit in the town of Tequila should be the private Museum of Sauza, then the public Museum of Tequila and, finally, the tour at Cuervo, the largest producer. After the distillery and the agave fields try to get an invite to La Rojena, Cuervo?s private reception area across the street from the distillery. Smile and be charming.

For anyone interested, Aranda was founded in 1761 and has a bit over 100,000 people. I visited Centinela Distillery where they produce both Centinela and Cabrito brands. A quick 5-minute drive to Cazadores, founded in 1922, brought me to the distillery that was built in 1973. In 2002 Bacardi purchased the company and has modernized the plant, bottling line and retail store. I was allowed to taste Corzo, the new super-premium Tequila that will be available in the western US by the time you read this story. The high-end products seem to be the fastest growing segment of the Tequila business although not quite so high tech is the introduction of classical music (Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto) during the fermentation process. I was told it sooths and relaxes the yeast. Hey, that is what they told me.

Jalisco has something for everyone; culture, history, artifacts, shopping, great weather, fine dining, terrific hotel choices and, of course, Mariachi music, plus Mexico?s national drink- Tequila. It all comes together in 5 days in Jalisco.

Sites to view before you set out to visit -

  • Tequila Regulatory Council
  • Mexico Tourism- (800-44-Mexico)

  • Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.